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Korea, Guam and Manus Island: US adjusts to manage its declining power

Written by: Contributed on 5 December 2019


 

The speed by which the Pentagon demanded a major South Korean (Republic of Korea) media outlet retract a statement that the US was considering a troop withdrawal from the country has shown sensitivities surrounding issues on the Korean peninsula.

US imperialism has long had its troops stationed in the ROK as part of the so-called Defence of Japan doctrine and for rapid deployment elsewhere.

The rise of China in recent decades, however, has had a dramatic effect on the Korean peninsula; the old balance of forces is changing, and the US is increasingly being forced back onto defensive positions.
 
It is also interesting to note, therefore, US foreign policy commitments toward Guam, situated in less sensitive surroundings than the Korean peninsula.
 
US demands ROK pay to “host” its troops
 
On 14 November the Chosun Ilbo, one of the ROK's most prestigious media outlets, published an article which included a warning from US General Mark Milley, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, questioning the role of the US in the ROK and the costs involved in maintaining nearly 30,000 troops in the country. (1) The article also included reference to the US considering a troop withdrawal from the country. 
 
Three days before the Chosun Ilbo publication, the US officially announced it was postponing a major air force joint exercise with the ROK involving sixty aircraft as part of diplomatic initiatives with the northern DPRK. (2)
 
The following week, high-level diplomatic talks between the two countries failed to resolve a US request that the ROK increase its defence budget five-fold for payment for US troops in the South. The ROK, at present, pays about $1 billion a year; the Trump administration wanted to increase the amount to $5 billion. (3) It followed a similar request made last July that Japan ‘pay roughly four times as much per year to offset the costs of stationing more than 50,000 U.S. troops there (foreignpolicy.com Nov 15, 2019).
 
While other media outlets also provided further information about the tense stand-off between the US and the ROK, an official announcement from the Pentagon denied the Chosun Ilbo report and demanded it be withdrawn immediately. (4) Later reference to a diplomatic figure in Washington being the source of the information quoted by Chosun Ilbo would tend to indicate that the content of the article, nevertheless, was correct. (5) The article, furthermore, also specified 'the potential reduction of a brigade had already been discussed with top brass of US forces in South Korea'. (6) 
 
Behind the scenes in Washington and the Pentagon there is every reason to believe the US is considering a partial withdrawal of troops very soon, following discussion about the matter dating back to 2017. During the early period of the Trump administration a Korean media outlet claimed the US was considering a troop withdrawal as part of an agenda to engage the northern DPRK in high-level diplomatic initiatives. (7) The following year, after initial diplomatic talks with the DPRK, a US-based media outlet actually reported Trump wanted to reduce the number of troops in the ROK. (8)
 
China’s challenge to US sphere of influence
 
A number of related factors, however, come into play:
 
*          The large US troop presence in the ROK has, historically, been part of the Defence of Japan doctrine intended for rapid regional deployment. The US has also maintained about 49,000 troops based in Japan as part of the same military planning. Recent moves by the Trump administration, therefore, have revealed just how dysfunctional the White House has become with the president relying upon advisors and others who appear amateurish and possessing questionable levels of competence when dealing with matters of state. While the official Defence Department position on levels of troops in the ROK was 'to maintain stability in North-east Asia', Trump has stated the US demand for increased payment for the troops was '$US 5 billion worth of protection', inferring changed military planning away from deployment to defence. (9)
 
*          The rapid rise of China has affected the balance of forces across the region; traditional positions of domination and control have been challenged by an economic competitor. The fact China has become the major trading partner with both the ROK and DPRK has shown the development of a successful three-way diplomatic relationship where the US is being forced out of what it has considered to be its sphere of influence. The uncomfortable position the US has found itself in was noted following the Pentagon using ROK military facilities to host a THAAD radar system in 2018, which was noted as possessing the range 'which can see into China'. (10) An informal trade embargo imposed by Beijing was noted on lines of creating a 'diplomatic chill' which 'affected ROK businesses'. (11)
 
 *         The ROK is also a country which has slowly come of age; presidents in the Blue House are no longer sycophantic clients of the White House and Pentagon, acting on endless streams of directives designed to serve 'US interests'.  
 
The outcome of the factors appears to be a changed US foreign policy position where they are attempting to slowly edge their way out of a possible confrontation and escalation of hostilities on the Korean peninsula. The US appears to be seeking options which include better value for financial outlay with troop presence in the region, in another, more accommodating regional position.
 
US upgrading Guam war base
 
During the period of the Obama presidency and regional military planning which included the 'pivot' position toward China, an allocation of $309 million was provided for Guam in Micronesia. The defence budget was largely allocated for construction of new military facilities as part of a much larger amount estimated at $8.7 billion. (12) Whether Trump wanted the ROK to pay an increased amount for hosting US troops to cover costs involved with budget allocations for Guam has yet to be established, although it would appear highly likely.
 
Recent US defence budgets with allocations specifically for Guam have included:
                                                $326 - $354 million in 2018;
                                                $448.5 million in 2019;
                                                $400 million proposed for 2020. (13)
         
A number of important factors have to be considered when studying Guam.
 
The small Pacific country has remained part of US territory, and is a client state. It is strategically positioned south of Japan between 140-150 degrees east; and it rests upon the same arc as US intelligence facilities based at Pine Gap, Central Australia, and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. (14) Both Diego Garcia and Guam, have, in recent times, been transformed into military hubs specifically designed for operations with Darwin Harbour in northern Australia as a support centre.
 
It is not particularly difficult to establish the military position allocated for Australia and Guam within wider regional military planning.
 
Coinciding with the initial diplomatic discussions about possible troop withdrawals from the ROK, the US used facilities on Guam to host MQ-4C Tritons, together with existing RQ-4 Global Hawks. (15) The US defence department later announced the two MQ-4C Tritons used for regional surveillance would be operational from Guam by December, 2018, with an accompanying Signals Intelligence facility operational by 2021. (16) There has been little ambiguity in the designated role of Australia as a regional hub for the US military planning.
 
 
US plans for Manus Island
 
In an official Australian military publication, it was noted that the Signals Intelligence facilities were intended for coverage of the South China Seas, and, while 'it remains unclear whether refurbishments at Manus Island include upgrades to support Tritons', the fact Japan, Guam and Manus Island all exist within 140-150 degrees east on an actual size world map, which also includes sensitive military installations in northern Australia, provide some considerable evidence of the strategic location of the PNG-based Lombrum facilities. (17)
 
It is also significant to note the stated range of the MQ-4C Tritons based on Guam, at 8,200 miles, provide an arc which swings through Taiwan in the north, with the Lombrum military facilities on Manus Island. (18)
 
While initial media releases for the Lombrum base made extensive use of military jargon to obscure scrutiny, it was eventually established that the planning was US-led with Australia footing the bill for a $5 million contract for the upgrade last year with the Fletcher Morobe Constructions Limited. (19) The timing of the upgrading of the military facilities coincided with similar developments on Guam with the planned siting of the MQW-4C Tritons. 
 
A further official media release, at the same time, also noted the nearby Momote airfield at Manus 'would be a valuable base.....for surveillance aircraft'. (20) The same media release also divulged the Lombrum facilities were being planned 'to support American naval units as the US is interested in examining locations to support operations in the Pacific', which was followed with a reference to 'negotiations.....opened up now between Australia, the US and PNG regarding access to Manus as a forward operating base'. (21)
 
Northern Australian military facilities have also been included within Pentagon military planning for US troop rotations for regional deployments, resting on endless military exercises and computer simulations for real-war scenarios.
 
We need an independent foreign policy!
    
1.     US Congressional leader dismisses troop pull-out talk, The Chosun Ilbo (ROK), 14 November 2019.
2.     S Korea, US shelve military exercise, Australian, 18 November 2019.
3.     US 'threatens to pull troops from S Korea', Australian, 22 November 2019.
4.     Pentagon riled, The Washington Examiner, 21 November 2019.
5.     Australian, op.cit., 22 November 2019.
6.     Ibid.
7.     Sim hints that US troop withdrawal could be on agenda for dialogue with North Korea, The Korean Herald, 27 April 2017.
8.     Trump reportedly wants to reduce number of US troops in South Korea, CNN, 4 May 2018, following an earlier article in the New York Times.
9.     Ibid; and, Australian, op.cit., 22 November 2019.
10.   CNN, ibid., 4 May 2018.
11.   Ibid.
12.   US military gearing up on Guam, Defence Industry Daily (U.S.), 4 December 2015.
13.   Senate's defence budget, The Pacific Daily News, 19 June 2018; and, Trump signs $717 billion defence law, The Pacific Daily News, 15 August 2018; and, Trump 2020 defence spending plan, The Pacific Daily News, 12 June 2019.
14.   Map of the World, Peters Projection, Actual Size, Scale, 1:1,230,000,000.        
15.   New Drones, The Guam Daily Post, 27 November 2017.
16.   US Navy deploying, The Diplomat, 12 April 2018.
17.   US Tritons head to Guam, Australian Defence Magazine, 25 September 2019.
18.   Diplomat, op.cit., 12 April 2018; and, Map of the World, Peters Projection, op.cit.
19.   The Weekend Australian, 22-23 September 2018.
20.   Benefits for all in Manus being a base for US and Australian forces, Australian, 29 August 2018.
21.   Ibid.

 

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